International health expert assumes chair of Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation.
"No nonsense" is the description of Dr. Etsuko Kita that springs to mind after a few minutes in her company. Dr. Kita, who assumed the chair of the board of Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation on April 1, brings with her a wealth of experience in international health and humanitarian aid activities and a stern disapproval of slackers.
Trained as a pediatrician, Dr. Kita has spent time with Japan's health ministry, working on overseas development assistance. Her resume includes spells with UNICEF at its Afghan Program Office in Peshawar and with the WHO at its Department of Emergency and Humanitarian Action. For the last eight years, she served as president of the Japanese Red Cross Kyushu International College of Nursing in Japan.
She credits her interest in becoming a doctor - and working with developing countries - to reading in the Japanese edition of Reader's Digest about the activities of a U.S. Navy physician, Thomas Dooley, in Laos and Vietnam in the 1950s. Later, in Afghanistan, she turned her attention to public health after seeing a young girl die of pneumonia and examining the factors that led to her death.
Based on her experiences, one of the lessons Dr. Kita drummed into her nursing students was the importance of critical thinking. "University is not just about learning what your professors know and what's written in textbooks. It's about acquiring the ability to think for yourselves and learning to deal with the problems you encounter that you don't know about."
She admits to having a short temper, but says her ire is directed at those who don't try hard enough. "I would often get mad at students and younger faculty members, telling them they could achieve so much more if only they applied themselves."
Taking over from Professor Kenzo Kiikuni, who has become president of SMHF, Dr. Kita oversees an organization with a focus on leprosy, palliative care and public health. "The foundation has a history and tradition of nearly 40 years," says Dr. Kita. "I am not about to make changes." But she does intend to explore "the balance between physical, mental and social health."
Regarding leprosy, Dr. Kita says, "While the disease physically affects a relatively small number of people today, especially here in Japan, its social dimension - the discrimination and the prejudice - is something that involves everyone. Dealing with that is a very difficult challenge."